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How to take a killer reference and increase your chances of hiring success

30 March 2016

We’ve recently noticed a sharp rise in the number of references we're being asked to obtain for candidates within the FMCG sector. Around 85% of candidates who are offered roles within the sector are now subject to often extensive referencing by their future employers. Only a year ago, this figure was closer to 50%.

Conducting reference checks is an absolutely vital part of any recruitment process. No matter how great a candidate may appear on paper, and regardless of how impressive they may have been when you interviewed them, no professional recruiter should ever let the reference checking process slip through the cracks.

Remember Yahoo’s CEO Scott Thompson who was forced to step down due to the discovery that he’s lied about his qualifications and experience? While the instances of blatant lies such as this may be rare, they do happen. And even when the CV checks out - as many as 55% of people are believed to embellish their CV in some way to make themselves more attractive to future employers. They may have exaggerated their responsibilities, claimed the credit for work that was not their own, or made themselves out to have a more senior role than they actually had.

The pitfalls associated with hiring someone and then finding out they aren’t who you thought they were are evident – and the cost of re-recruiting can be vast – as much as 3 times the cost of your initial hire. Candidates have been able to embellish their CVs in the past or even lie and get away with it quite simply because they could – companies didn’t check, and when they did they rarely dug deep enough to uncover any untruths.

The steep increase in reference requests within the FMCG sector is music to our ears. As recruiters, New Chapter don’t ever want to be in the position of having to replace a candidate after discovering they’re not what they said they were, and reputation is worth more to us than to let clients down in this way. 

The way we take references has changed dramatically over the years. New Chapter are not content with simply ticking boxes by confirming past employment dates, job titles etc. A good reference assesses how well suited someone is for a role, delving deep into the background, working style and cultural preferences of the candidate. We approach references with the same level of attention and detail as we do interviews. 

Here are our top tips:

1. Plan your questions carefully: Really take the time to plan what you need to know about the candidate you’re interviewing. Are there any areas of concern that you have about them? Are there any specific/important claims they make that make a real difference to you? By identifying what’s most important you’ll keep the process short and to the point.

2. Keep it 90% quantitative: Try to ensure that you ask quantitative questions – such as “please rate the candidate on a scale of 1-5”. By doing this you’ll be able to score your candidate in terms of fit or suitability for a role. 

3. Speak to the referees: Make sure you speak to the referees – don’t just get them to email you or fill in a form. You can determine a great deal from someone’s enthusiasm, tone of voice and energy when speaking that you won’t get if you rely on written communication.

4. Make sure you’re speaking to the right person: Giving a false referee (i.e. getting a friend to act as a reference and pretend to be someone else) is more common than you’d think. Make sure you clarify that you’re speaking to the right person by using a work email address or a work phone number to clarify they are who they say they are.

5. Be consistent with all candidates: If you approach each candidate with the same questions and you’re consistent in your approach you’ll be able to assess the strength of one candidate compared with another and remove the emotional or human element of reference taking.

6. Keep it positive: Some ex-employers fear retribution from giving honest references, so keep your approach positive – state that you’re trying to determine whether the person is the right fit for the role and what their strengths are as well as what areas you’ll need to support them on in their new role – you’re not trying to catch them out or dig dirt on them. Your terminology is important to make your referee feel relaxed and comfortable with speaking their mind.

7. Look online: People’s lives, how they conduct themselves and how true they are to the individual they present at interview can often be reinforced by looking at their online profile. If you don’t do it someone in your business is likely to, so check out Facebook, Linked-In and Twitter pages – get a sense of who the candidate really is and what interests them.

8. Do it early: Take references as early as you can in the recruitment process if circumstances allow it. While it may not always be possible to take references from a current job until the candidate has resigned, past employers, clients and colleagues may be readily available to speak. After an offer has been made, it’s far harder to “pull out” in the rare case that you might need to. If the need arises that warrant your withdrawal of an offer then don’t be afraid to make the right decision for your business. It’s kinder on your candidate to let them go and find a role that’s perfect for them rather than take them on despite your reservations, only to be faced with an even more difficult scenario further down the line.

Finally, never allow yourself to want a candidate so much that nothing is going to put you off with the result that you neglect to take a proper reference. Making an informed decision is right for you, your business and for the candidate.

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